Not a Lexis Advance subscriber? Try it out for free.

Immigration Law

Geoffrey Hoffman: EOIR Needs Better Immigration Judges

Prof. Geoffrey Hoffman, Nov. 24, 2015 - "It is important, I think, to note the import but also the paradox behind the BIA's latest precedent decision, Matter of Y-S-L-C-, 26 I&N Dec. 688 (BIA 2015) that admonishes IJ's not to bully minors. In the decision, the Board discusses conduct by an Immigration Judge that can be construed as "bullying or hostile" behavior and says it is "never appropriate," particularly in cases involving "minor respondents," concluding such behavior may result in remand to a different Immigration Judge. I am glad that the Board is finally taking to task this kind of egregious IJ behavior. On the one hand, we should applaud the Board for pointing out this behavior and finally holding it up to the light of day in an important new precedent decision. On the other hand, it is a sad commentary on the behavior of some judges that the appellate body of the EOIR has to even say this publicly. Of course judges should not behave this way, and the fact that recusal is mandated by the BIA in such situations is something to congratulate the Board for now getting behind. But, one wonders whether this response is at all sufficient. Whether, as an IJ, I can now say, "Well, the worst that will happen is that I will have the case taken away from me on remand, and therefore I do not have to deal with this mess anymore." It doesn't seem like much of a deterrent.

In a case which I handled on appeal, the IJ denied the respondent's attorney the opportunity to call a psychologist to testify about the respondent's mental condition and disease (bipolar disorder), a fact which went directly to the particular social group and seemed particularly relevant to me. When the attorney respectfully requested permission to put on the expert witness, and specially whether the witness could testify about any medications the respondent had taken or was taking the IJ in response asked the attorney whether she was on any medications. Was she on any medications? I read and re-read that line again and again as I prepared the appeal thinking perhaps I had missed the joke. But this wasn't a joke. It was simply intemperate behavior by an IJ. Thankfully, the BIA correctly and compassionately remanded the case but based on the bipolar condition, recognizing that it could form a valid PSG. No mention was made of the issue of judicial impropriety I had raised in the brief. In other appeals I have done before the Board, I have noticed that when raising issues with the Board about IJ's missing evidence or even misconstruing the factual background, the Board does not seem to deal with these issues head-on but instead bases their decisions on some other ground, preferring to adjudicate the appeal on a legal ground rather than on the basis of judicial misconduct or judicial mistake. And there is nothing surprising here, with the Board insulating IJ's from admonishment and not highlighting their misunderstandings of the record, but there is I think a cost which has been underreported or perhaps not even appreciated. The cost is that IJs become used to behaving in a way that can be described as intemperate at best and demeaning or demoralizing and abusive, at worst.

This said, I do have a lot of sympathy for many IJs, having worked very hard myself for a federal judge for two years after law school, and seeing and appreciating the incredible stress and responsibilities of being a judge. The IJs, it should be mentioned, have it worse: they have to juggle a case load of hundreds and hundreds of cases, while at the same time maintaining compassion and composure at all times, and at the same time providing a clear, cogent and correct legal analysis in all cases and contexts. However, and this needs to be said, I think some IJs should not be IJs and should not have been selected to be IJs. If we want to make the immigration court system work we need to do a better job in vetting these judges, choosing based on temperament and suitability to deal with the rigors of handling all these cases with compassion and professionalism.

This is the time now (at this very moment) to make this statement as loudly and boldly as possible, since EOIR right now is advertising for 50+ new judgeships across the country. Since we have approximately 250+ judges, this represents an approximate 20 percent increase. I implore EOIR to make these decisions with due regard to how the judges might act in future, not just whether they have experience deporting people, working for the government in other capacities, or experiences such as being in the military. While those are factors, let's draw from the ranks of those with proven compassion, like the YMCA directors, legal aid attorneys, and people who will never belittle a child, never lose themselves in the power and prestige, and be resilient and persevere in one of the hardest jobs imaginable."

Geoffrey A. Hoffman
Director-University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic
Clinical Associate Professor
4604 Calhoun Road
TU-II, Room 56
Houston, TX 77204-6060
Tel: (713) 743-2094
Fax: (713) 743-2195